The Shape of Water and The Erotic Revenge of The Woman and The Monster
Eve and the snake, the Phantom and Christine, Kim and Edward Scissorhands, the Gill-Man and Kay, it never ends well. Cover your eyes, in horror movies the monster is slain or exiled for its difference, and the woman punished for her gaze, for seeing herself reflected in the monstrous and drawn to the unnatural. Cue scream. The Shape of Water answers the forlorn gaze between “the woman” and “the monster” that has been hanging in erotic tension since Creature from The Black Lagoon. The Shape of Water revisits this fated pairing between creature and woman, and disrupts their unrelenting punishment. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the Creature (Doug Jones) are drawn to one another’s difference in a whimsically dystopian government laboratory during a nostalgic-fictional 1950’s or 60’s. Directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water is particularly suited to compare to traditional horror since it’s a direct reference to the cult classic, Creature from The Black Lagoon, tackling the task of bringing the camp into “high culture” without losing its queerness and unique gendered and sexual hierarchies.
The film opens with the daily routine of Elisa, and her Amélie-esque joy in her day is almost the best part of the film. Every morning she masturbates in the bath, climaxing just as her egg timer goes off and it’s time to pack her lunch. Masturbating as a regular part of her life immediately positions her as a woman with desires who knows her own body, thus opening her character to a position of power in her later sexual encounters with the Creature. Right off the bat, she is not meant to be a nonsexual, differently abled woman who is “awoken” by sex, a common theme in film. Elisa is mute, and this is an othering trait that the film uses to connect her to the creature, who she communicates with through sign language. Often in horror or fantasy those who are “different,” in many cases simply in their femaleness, have an inherent connection to the otherworldly.
While working as a cleaning woman at the lab, Elisa encounters the Creature and her satisfyingly repetitive routine is interrupted. Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) is Elisa’s best and only friend at work and she is often the only voice throughout the laboratory scenes. Women of color are not well represented in this genre, (although the upcoming film, A Wrinkle in Time seems promising), but Zelda is given identity and influence on the plot, taking a risk to help Elisa rescue the creature. Elisa’s other best friend is her neighbor Giles, a sympathetic messy artist of a character. His friendship with Elisa truly warmed my heart, and I was disappointed by the subplot of his unrequited attraction for a young man who works at a diner. It continued the lonely, creepy, sad, gay male character stereotype, and I’ve heard the argument: well, it is supposed to take place in the past - but is it? In a world where an undoubtedly queer romance is possible between an aquatic Amazonian god and a human, couldn’t a nice older man find a date? I digress.
After a tentative courtship involving hardboiled eggs and dancing, Elisa and the Creature engage in a romantic and sexual relationship. The creature is a lot more creature-like than I imagined, and it is slightly unsettling. They eat a cat and move around on all fours. At first I thought that was a mistake, but as the story moves forward it proves to make for a more complex romance. Although the Creature is described as having retractable phallic genitalia, and the characters refer to them as a man on several occasions, the creature is clearly not a man, and in horror and fantasy this is sometimes a point of fear, but in this case, the queer nonbinary of the creature’s body is erotic.
The true monster of this film is Elisa’s boss, Richard Strickland. He tortures the Creature and makes sexual advances at Elisa, aggressively looming over her as she cleans, professing arousal at her inability to speak. Before the male gaze, both the bodies of Elisa and the Creature are positioned as objects both desired and feared for their difference. The film purposefully plays with the gendered act of looking, and grants Elisa a unique twist on the female gaze in horror: she sees herself in the creature, she shares in its sexual difference and othered status, but she returns the creature’s gaze and she is not afraid…she’s turned on.
Elisa and the Creature meet their classic end at the cruel hands of Strickland. Not long for this world, they die hand in fin. Credits roll? Ah, but wait! What’s that? The creature stands, their wounds closing! Triumphantly resurrected to take revenge. The Creature tenderly lifts Elisa’s lifeless body from the ground and plunges into the ocean. They turn her strategically placed scars into gills, and she gasps to life in her new, nonhuman body. Rather than suffer for their difference, Elisa and the creature are complete in their glowing, floating union.
The Shape of Water is problematic at times, and does not check all the boxes for the kinds of diverse and full voices on and behind the camera I hope to see in my beloved fantasy genre moving forward. That being said, it built a complex female lead in Elisa, and played elegantly with the themes of sex, gender, and power. The so often punished female gaze and the othered body are given their revenge after all these years, and it’s sweet.